Friday, August 21, 2009

A little eggs story then smoked soft boiled eggs with caviar

On a business trip to the Netherlands a few years ago, a colleague and I were having lunch in a small bistro on the outskirts of a northern town called Alkmaar. It was directly beneath the town’s historic and still functioning windmill. Damon was what I would call a non-eclectic eater at best. It has always bothered me to see folks who pick through their food with a fork and knife –inspecting every crumb and bit for that hint of some unappealing vermin that the chef snuck in during the cooking process. This is far different from the inspection of the gustatory enthusiast who often deconstructs his meal while lauding each component for its creative use. The difference can be seen in the face of the inspector. A scowl or grimace on the former and a look of reverence on the latter. Damon had that scowl for 2 solid weeks (except for our adventures into the red light district of Amsterdam which should be left for a completely different blog).

In the smaller towns of the Netherlands, English is scarce making reading menus difficult. Sometimes you just had to take your best guess and Damon was trying his best to survive this horrid dining experience. On this day, we recognized the word “Hamburger” and Damon felt safe ordering this. I feel enlightened knowing the word has Dutch origins. I was prepared for the disaster to come when the waitress struggled to convey through a combination of frustrated hand gestures, guttural utterances and less-than-adequate interpreter help from the neighboring table that bread was an option. If bread was not standard for a Dutch hamburger, there was going to be an unappealing twist to this story for Damon. With a bright smile, the lovely barkeep returned with our plates and set before Damon two hamburger patties that I’m guessing were boiled. To the side was a large piece of the optional crusty bread atop a fresh cut slice of tomato and a few lettuce leaves. The coup-de-gras, though were the two poached eggs nestled atop the beef –yolks pre-broken and running lazily through the valleys of the meat. After a lunch of bread and butter, tomato and lettuce, Damon rose from the table with that scowl fixed and I swore –just like mom used to warn us about childhood eye-crossing –this was permanent.

Eggs. C’mon. The first thing most of us learn to cook as kids are scrambled eggs, right? There’s something primal and comforting about cracking eggs. But I must admit, that first guy who saw that white orb squirt out of a chicken’s ass and decided, “Wow, I should eat that!” well –he’s my hero; an epicurean visionary of unrivaled proportion. Or maybe he was just that hungry. Either way, eggs are enjoyed on every corner of the inhabited world and for great reason. They can be raw, boiled, fried, baked, stuffed, simmered or steamed. They can be the star of your meal or be a subtle perfect ingredient. In the September issue of Bon App├ętit, a particular egg dish caught my eye. Told in unique and captivating comic book style is the story of an egg appetizer served at Momofuku Ko in New York City. Chef David Chang has been toying with this dish for some time until arriving at his current sensation. He perfectly soft boils an egg for a very specified length of time (5 minutes, 10 seconds). It then goes into a ice bath to stop the cooking process. Once cool enough to handle, the egg is gently pealed taking extra care not to split the white apart. The first bit of creative magic that sets this apart from any pedestrian egg dish is that the peeled egg is now returned to a water bath infused with a touch of liquid smoke. An overnight stay in the refrigerator yields a smoked, soft boiled egg. Already sounding perfect to me, the egg is re-warmed (4 minutes in a hot water bath) and served split –its silky warm ribbons of yellow oozing out like a perfect sunset over the beach. Ah, but wait, this is where it really gets good. A bit of caviar is then gently placed at the split in the egg giving the impression that these briny, black bits of oceanic perfection followed the yolk onto the plate. I had to try this. There was more to the dish than just the egg. He serves this atop on onion soubise (slow braised onions) next to a few homemade chips and some greens. For me though, it was the egg that moved me.

Within hours of reading this article, I was at it. Before wasting my time and money at the store for liquid smoke and caviar, I had to see if I could make a soft boiled egg at all. It’s a good thing I started with 3 because only one egg ended up worthy. It takes some practice removing the shell from that silly thing without pulling the while apart and ruining the yolk. I found the tricky part to be at the poles of the egg while the equator seemed to go fairly smooth. Now to the store. Since I live in the burbs, so to speak, I wasn’t willing to travel the distance required to find a high quality caviar so I settled on what was readily available at the grocery store. I imagine that might appall any caviar aficionados out there but I don’t know any. There was a black lumpfish caviar that was $14 for a tiny jar so I chose that. It certainly looked regal enough although my next rendition will be with the good stuff.

I got home, followed the recipe with my improvised ingredients and ended up with a treat of epic proportion. This tasted like something you’d pay a fortune for in a restaurant and I can only imagine how wonderful it would be with the accompanying onions at Momofuku Ko. Certainly, my rendition may be a bit more crude than the celebrated chef’s version but I was quite pleased with my more pedestrian version and I can’t wait to make this again.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mac and Cheese with Pork Jowl Bacon and Roasted Poblano Pepper

This post is really about Mac and Cheese but first I have to share a recent discovery about one of the ingredients that I just fell in love with. If you watch The Food Network even a little bit, you’ve heard talk about pork fat and how delicious it can make almost anything. I have found this to be quite true. Now I know it’s not horribly good for you but a little goes a long way. About a year ago, I began reserving my bacon drippings and keeping them in the refrigerator in a small plastic container. I’ll go to this frequently instead of butter and I use about half a teaspoon as the base for many dishes that may begin with, say, onions and garlic. It’s really awesome.

Some weeks ago I was looking through the section at my grocery store reserved for meats that most folks rarely cook with. Things like pig’s feet and beef heart which are placed at the far end of the meat cooler. I never see anyone perusing the stuff. Tucked behind a bit of intestine, I noticed a package of pork jowl bacon. I wasn’t really sure what that was but it looked like bacon. Into the shopping cart it went. It came in a big slab that I had to cut myself.

Its first use in my house was in some collard greens that I cooked in a pretty traditional southern style. Wow was that flavorful. Unsmoked and a bit less salty than regular bacon, this had a pure taste. It was unmistakably and exquisitely pork. I have since used it in several dishes where I thought bacon was called for. I must admit, I like it better.

Now on to the Mac and Cheese. While out of the box Mac and Cheese is a popular American tradition in most households, it could not be further from its home made cousin both in flavor and ease of preparation. From the box to the plate is about 10 minutes from the store-bought variety and everything can be done right from the same pot. While I don’t find this horribly tasty, it’ll do in a pinch. Homemade Mac and Cheese, though, is just heaven. A sea of bubbling cheese with crunchy brown bits of breadcrumbs nestled about is enough to put anyone in a good mood. Unfortunately though, you do have to work for it a bit. I would call the home made variety an intermediate dish. Not completely simple to prepare and a bit time consuming, I messed quite a few attempts up before stumbling upon the correct concoction. The recipe I offer here is my most recent and it took about 2 hrs and required 3 pans and a few kitchen gadgets. (I cheated and used a food processor attachment instead of a box grater for the cheese.) Every bite, though, was worth the effort. From scratch Mac and Cheese just tastes like someone loves you. Silky, creamy, cheesy and packed with such succulent decadence, I can’t contemplate a more heartwarming dish.

Here are a couple of tips. You can use the amounts that I give you below but they are an estimate of what I made. The real key to the cheese sauce isn’t so much the type of cheese but the consistency when added to the macaroni before baking. It should be a bit more watery that you might think because much of the liquid gets absorbed by the noodles in the oven. If it’s too thick from the start, your cheese will end up kinda gloppy in the final dish. I’ve done this before and while the taste is still wonderful, the texture is a bit off putting. For the macaroni, you want a version that acts as a vessel to hold the cheese to it. I used shells because they are these little cups with ridges and it worked perfectly. Macaroni has the hollow center that does a nice job and is much more traditional. Rigatoni would be great too. As far as the cheese goes, the sky’s the limit. Lisa often complains that I have so many different cheeses that they have their own dedicated spot in the fridge. That’s true, they do. In this dish I used 4: Monterey Jack, cheddar, smoked provolone (over the top good) and Swiss.

Why did I choose these? Because I had them and I thought they’d go well together. I was right but it was just a guess. Another tip is to add some new flavors to the dish. Just the cheesy version stands up all by itself but you can be as creative as you like. I used the aforementioned bacon and some roasted Poblano peppers. What I ended up with was a scrumptious meal that had small crunchy bacon-y bits (because I rendered the pork jowl bacon first) and the sweet heat of the roasted Poblanos. Shrimp or Lobster would be good. Maybe some diced tomato would too. Since most of my recipes are pretty off the cuff, your own creative style would suit this just fine. Here is my version and it was yummy.

Macaroni and Cheese with pork jowl bacon and roasted Poblano peppers

2-3 large Poblano peppers
½ cup of pork jowl bacon, cubed into ¼ inch pieces (regular bacon would be just fine too)
1 lb pasta shells or elbow macaroni
½ stick (4 tbsp) butter
3 cups half and half
½ cup cheddar cheese, grated
½ cup Monterey Jack cheese, grated
½ cup smoked provolone, grated
½ cup Swiss cheese, grated
1/3 cup bread crumbs (I make my own in a food processor with a bit of garlic powder and salt but Panko crumbs would be good too. Regular store bought would be OK but that’s always a very last resort, in my opinion)

Place the peppers in a 450 degree oven and cook until all of the skin is dark brown or black, about 30 minutes. Remove and place in a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap so the peppers can steam a bit. Allow to rest at least 30 minutes to cool. Take each pepper and remove the brown/black skin so that the green flesh is what you have left. Discard the seeds and rinse the pepper flesh clean then dry with paper towel. Dice peppers finely and set aside for later.

Place the cubed bacon in a skillet that is preheated to medium low. You want to avoid too much sizzle because we want these to render over 10-15 minutes and not cook like traditional bacon bits. If you are using regular bacon, you want it just a bit underdone. When done, move to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain the excess fat.

In a large pot of salted boiling water, add your shells. Turn heat down and cook for about 7 minutes until shells are al dente. Drain and set aside.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter and add the half and half. Bring to just a scald and add the cheese. Stir until all the cheese is melted. I use a whisk to determine the right consistency. If the sauce is right, it will fall away from the whisk as it is lifted out. Think tomato soup thick: a bit liquidy. If too thick, add a bit more half and half.

In a casserole dish, combine the bacon, Poblanos, shells and cheese sauce. Depending on the size of your casserole, you may or may not use all of your cheese sauce. Place in a 350 degree oven and cook for 30-45 minutes. Remove and sprinkle bread crumbs over the top and cook an additional 10 minutes.

Serves 8-10